Rituals are an inalienable part of any nation, including Chinese, which is considered to be one of the oldest cultures. In Chinese culture, a ritual is perceived as a meeting of heaven and earth, a special kind of symbolic action that allows a person to know its place and role in the world. Beginning with the era of Zhou, a ritual becomes a fundamental concept of Chinese culture. It was during the time of Zhou era, when the first descriptions of rituals have appeared, which was in the form of songs, odes, and hymns. Some of them have been comprised in the so-called Book of Odes, which is considered to be one of the most significant monuments in the literature of Chinese people. The similar views on the role of ritual in lives of people were expressed by such prominent thinkers and philosophers as Confucius. However, given the fact that the mentioned odes originate from the period when philosophical schools of China have not existed, it is clear that the meaning of ritual, that is presented in those literary works would be different from the ones pointed out by Confucius. Therefore, the following work focuses on analysis and comparison of the ritual concepts that are described in the Book of Odes and the teachings of Confucius.
Some songs of the Book of Odes are associated with rituals that were performed during the temple ceremonies, in honor of the deceased ancestors, and the spirits of nature. These rituals were accompanied by various sacrifices (grain, livestock, wine, etc.) and were meant to please the spirits and gods and, thus, achieve a good harvest, good hunting, avert a drought or flood, and live a long and prosperous life. It should be taken into consideration that the most important rituals, namely the ones that involved making offerings to the gods and spirits that represented the powers of nature were rather formal, being of a strictly business nature. In accordance with the rules established by Hou Ji, the inventor of agriculture and the sacrificial rites, people offered the fruits that were gathered from their fields, grains and animal fat “to give a start to the coming year” (Book of Odes 3).
The sacrifices in honor of the deceased ancestors were of different nature (i.e. the Divine Protectors), they were often performed by the noble houses, they were more lively and emotional – many people were invited to participate and the talk and laughter were quite common. It is interesting to note that while the rites were carried out with the utmost respect and, in accordance to rules, they required no special spiritual mood from those that offered the sacrifice. In particular, it seems that the only person who had to maintain this mood was the so-called impersonator – the medium between the living and the dead (Book of Odes 5). Basically, the connection between the man and Heaven resembled that between the members of family – the songs describing the mentioned rituals do not express fear before the Heaven and the spirits but rather the feeling of a deep gratitude and respect towards them. The sacrifices were meant to please the ancestral spirits, making them provide a divine protection and numerous blessings (Book of Odes 5). Basically, by performing the ritual, people were making sure they will be successful, having the good harvest, prosperity, and living a long life. As a result, the majority of rituals, described in the Book of Odes, can be perceived as primary means for the provision of a comfortable existence in the world.
In fact, the only time the ritual involves such a concept as the inner virtue is mentioned in the song 235 that describes the defeat of Shang dynasty at the hands of the people of Zhou, blessed by King Wen. It is noted that the defeated Shang warriors had to offer sacrifices to their enemies – Zhou kings, as they have failed to heed the Heaven’s Mandate and lost its charge. In turn, the Zhou vassals are warned of the same fate, in case they disobey the will of Heaven (Book of Odes 6). As a result, it is possible to assume that for warriors and rulers of the time, the rituals were somewhat of a civic duty, i.e. the means of strengthening the world order and the state system, as well as ensuring the victory in battle.
In the teaching of Confucius, the ritual is also given a central role in the life of the society and is perceived in a somewhat similar way to the concept described in the Book of Odes (i.e. the strict adherence to traditions, the respect towards the ancestors, etc.). In fact, Confucius has viewed the ethno-tribal rituals described there as an archetypal matrix for the implantation of his political doctrine in physical, spiritual, and intellectual sphere of the contemporary China. Despite the fact that neither Confucius, nor his followers have given any clear definition to this concept, it is still possible to identify it as a complex set of rules and internal experiences, establishing a link between man and Heaven (The Analects of Confucius 13). At the same time, the description was not even necessary to anyone because the ritual was understood as a mystical and unexpressed will of Heaven that was embodied in actions of a man. From the outside, the contents of the ritual could include kneeling and bowing, complex forms of approach to the governor and the higher officials, as well as the other standards of communication in the society. Such ritual does not equalize people – on the contrary, it clearly defines their place in the society. Essentially, all of these actions led to the fact that a person is fully subordinated, its spiritual energy to that of the ruler, dissolving itself in the flow of power that comes from a man above it.
Implementation of the ritual in everyday life is based on a fairly complex relationship between a man and Heaven, the people themselves, as well as the individual and the state. For example, a person must address Heaven, the governor, and its family with the equal sincerity and devotion. It is a unified system of relationships, based on the law – the ritual. It is obvious that for Confucius, ritual is not just a set of rules invented by people, as in the case of the Book of Odes. The ritual is only comprehended by mankind, being transferred to the level of words and gestures. In general, for Confucius, the ritual exists independently of the humanity – it is given by nature, like any other natural law. Still, as in the case of the Book of Odes, the adherence to these standards of behavior will lead both the state and the individual to prosperity, and ignoring this ritual will only hasten their death. Basically, one may not look at something that is contrary to the ritual, may not listen to what is contrary to ritual, and cannot say anything that contradicts the ritual (The Analects of Confucius 6). This statement reflects the very essence of the teachings of Confucius. According to his writings, the subordination to the ritual was something that gave meaning to human life.
At the same time, the concept of ritual is very complex and multifaceted, and Confucius himself admitted that it is not easy to follow. In this regard, for Confucius himself, the ritual is a feat, an internal austerity, falling from which will cause chaos in the country. Not every man of the past embodied such a ritual, and Confucius understood it, i.e. he was not conservative. For him, the past itself can be full of flaws, but somewhere in the distant centuries of history, there were people, such as Zhou kings, whose behavior might indicate that there is a true embodiment of the ritual (The Analects of Confucius 8). Nevertheless, there are certain rules of conduct, which make ritual accessible for each person. They include benevolence, duty, loyalty, honesty, and the filial piety (The Analects of Confucius 6). It is these qualities that form the basis of ethical teachings of Confucius, which have been developed into a powerful social and political doctrine.
At the same time, for Confucius, a funeral rite is one of the most important rituals. The death of any person was seen not just as an ordinary death, in accordance with the laws of nature. It was perceived as a cosmic event, the death of a carrier of the culture, which cannot be ignored. After all, a man came into the world and his departure from life is very complex and mystical process. An ordinary person cannot understand why he/she was born and why does he/she has to die so quickly, unable to achieve even a fraction of what was planned. For Confucius, only one thing was clear – in the very fact of the existence of the human life, there is a global sense of man as a cultural being. As a result, his whole life should be turned into a ritual, especially its completion. Thus, Confucius actively preaches scrupulous adherence to all the details of the funeral rites and the observance of mourning (The Analects of Confucius 8). Perhaps, this is one of the primary ideas of his philosophy: maintaining a constant communication with the spirits of the ancestors can nourish people with their divine energy. In this regard, the concept of ritual presented by Confucius is quite close to the one described in the Book of Odes.
Thus, it can be concluded that despite the quite similar purpose – the creation of the connection between the man and Heaven – the concept of ritual described in the Book of Odes and that provided by Confucius cannot be viewed as identical. In the first case, the rituals are more down-to-earth and practical, serving as means to provide comfortable existence through numerous blessings from the spirits. On the contrary, Confucius has expanded the concept of ritual greatly – for him, it is much more than a simple formality but rather a way of life, which affected not only the land the people live in, but also their inner world. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account that many of the ideas of Confucius, especially those regarding the rituals, are based on the contents of the Book of Odes, which explains the strict adherence to the rules and the need to honor the ancestors, which has been given a central place in Confucianism. Indeed, the Book of Odes clearly demonstrates a diversity of the ancient Chinese culture and religion, especially in terms of rituals and traditions. Therefore, it is not surprising that Confucius and his followers have embraced it as a sort of foundation, on which it was possible to build the new ideas.